April 10, 2014 Leave a comment
The Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway marked the second time that the Sprint Cup Series has visited a 1.5-mile track in seven races this season. Truth be told, there were clear similarities between the results from the Lone Star State and Las Vegas. Some organizations have the 1.5-milers figured out, while others encountered struggles that were all-too-similar to those seen in the desert earlier this season.
This edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not highlights the harsh realities of faulty equipment while celebrating the escapades of a young veteran (yes, that’s right).
It’s safe to say that Team Penske has this 1.5-mile thing figured out. Joey Logano wound up in Victory Lane at the Great American Speedway after Penske’s other effort, the Blue Deuce, took the honors in Vegas.
Wins at Las Vegas and Texas? Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Team Penske are bringing it in 2014.
Penske drivers combined to lead 193 laps (or over half of the 340-lap distance) and ran 1-2 for much of the closing stages in Fort Worth. Logano, who now has two victories in his tenure at Penske matched the total he reached Victory Lane in four-plus seasons driving for his former employer, Joe Gibbs.
Jeff Gordon ran inside the top 5 for much of the day and did his best to spoil the afternoon for Logano in the clutch, utilizing a two-tire stop to grab the lead before a green-white-checkers countdown. However, the No. 22 battled back during the final two laps to win over Gordon and Kyle Busch.
That marks four career wins for the 24-year-old, a seven-year veteran at this point, and judging from his recent form more could be on the horizon. Logano is tied for the most top 5s in the series (with four) and moved up to fourth in the standings, just 24 points behind the driver that he bested Monday.
Gordon assumed the points lead with an uncharacteristic runner-up finish while donning Texas A&M University’s colors. Producing a major point haul while sporting an in-state school’s maroon on the No. 24 Axalta Chevrolet — now that’s hot. Not bad for a driver who wasn’t getting nearly enough respect in last week’s Hot or Not.
Watch out, Gordon might not be done yet. The Hendrick Motorsports driver takes his series-best 7.4 average finish to Darlington Raceway, where he has a good chance to improve it. Gordon has seven wins at the track “too tough to tame” — the most among active drivers.
Gordon wasn’t the only driver to gamble on two tires during the final pit cycle. Brian Vickers also took chances, and while the No. 55 Camry wasn’t as good as the No. 24 during much of the day, it didn’t have to be. Vickers stayed with the leaders during the white-flag lap and came home fourth. That’s three top 10s over the past four races, moving Vickers to ninth in the standings — the highest he’s been since September 2009.
Here’s one other fact to keep in mind. Monday marked back-to-back races that have been affected by late two-tire strategies, after drivers benefited from them in Martinsville. Look for Vickers to roll the dice again in the near future.
Tony Stewart was one of two who gambled successfully at the Paperclip. While he didn’t take the risk this time around, he did score another top 10 — his third overall. Stewart started from the pole and led his first lap of the season, then led 73 more before crossing the line 10th.
Smoke is another driver to look out for at Darlington. He has experienced a sort of revival at the South Carolina track lately and is still hungry for a first-ever win there.
First-ever win? Try first-ever start. Kyle Larson will meet the Lady in Black for the first time in Cup and he’ll be doing so with a lead in the Rookie of the Year standings.
Larson has shown why Chip Ganassi took a chance on him recently and put on another rookie clinic in round seven, posting times that rivaled the eventual winner down the stretch en route to fifth. That’s two top 5s in three races for the No. 42 team and propels Larson to 16th in points overall.
There were plenty of other feel-good stories, too, including more solid finishes for Paul Menard (ninth) and Aric Almirola (12th). But not everyone was able to kick things into gear following Sunday’s postponement.
The best (or worst) example of this downside is Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who might not have gotten enough sleep Sunday night. Whatever the case, Junior apparently wasn’t focused when he clipped the infield grass at 190 mph, completely destroying the No. 88’s front end after only 13 laps. The National Guard Chevrolet then caught fire before coming to rest along the inside retaining wall at the exit of Turn 2.
Junior was fine after the accident, but the No. 88 was a blazing mess. It’s his first DNF of the season and drops him to sixth in the standings after entering the weekend as the series points leader.
Jimmie Johnson also paid the price for Junior’s mistake. Johnson was running behind the No. 88 as the accident unfolded and wound up getting a windshield full of parts and pieces from his teammate’s car. The impacts were so forceful that it caused the No. 48’s Lexan windshield to collapse into the braces that help to hold it in place.
The Lowe’s team had little issue returning the machine to race shape, but a flat tire later cost Johnson several laps and he was unable to recover. He finished 25th despite running competitively afterward.
Johnson’s path to a potential victory was derailed for the third straight race, but he’ll be among the favorites in Darlington if the No. 48 possesses the speed that it’s shown during this rough stretch.
There are a few other perennial threats that could have a shot during Cup’s next stop, as well but they can’t seem to keep their cars on the track.
Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick have combined for 49 Sprint Cup victories, including two this season, but neither has shown the consistency needed to be anywhere near the top of the standings. While the other five winners are battling for the points lead, the Stewart-Haas Racing teammates are struggling to remain inside the cutoff for Chase eligibility (30th).
Harvick bowed out second this week — the victim of a blown engine that put the No. 4 behind the wall after only 28 laps. He has only completed 82.9 percent of laps ran this season and has four finishes of 36th or worse over the past five races.
Busch’s No. 41 Chevrolet, meanwhile, was a common sight during FOX’s telecast for all the wrong reasons. The Outlaw was responsible for back-to-back cautions on lap 177, then again on lap 220 for individual spins. He later had a flat tire that was responsible for the blowout that obliterated the rear quarterpanel of his car and accounted for a 39th-place DNF.
Busch’s run-of-the-mill Darlington numbers of late — a 20.6 average finish over his last three trips – aren’t helping his prospects of pulling out of the rut he’s in right now, 25th in points.
Having a driver drop from hot to cold in one week is a rare occurrence in Hot or Not, but that’s been (almost) the case for multiple SHR drivers this season. Since expanding to four cars, the organization has had isolated successes here and there but cannot put things together for more than a race. Its teams rank 14th, 25th, 26th, and 29th respectively in owner points, making SHR the most disappointing major organization this season.
Boom-or-bust setups or not, these new Chase guidelines have definitely produced some odd trends.